JEWS IN MORAVIA

When they were expelled from Lower Austria and Vienna in 1421, a large number of Austrian Jews settled in South Moravia. Unlike in Bohemia, where the Jews were concentrated in one large centre, in Moravia they created a number of smaller communities.

In addition to Brno and Olomouc, where their numbers were greatest, the Jews settled in other royal towns, including Jihlava, Znojmo, Uherské Hradiště, and Uničov. Records of a Jewish presence in Prostějov, Podivín, Třebíč, Mikulov, Ivančice, and Boskovice date back to the mid-1400s. From the early 1500s, records show a presence in Slavkov, Třešť, Kroměříž, Mohelnice, and Svitavy. This later spread to Jemnice, Pohořelice, Moravské Budějovice, and Uherský Brod. Jews left a significant mark even in such small villages as Dolní Kounice, Miroslav, and Šafov. 

Ethnic Jews have been an integral part of urban life since medieval times. Despite the common prejudices of the majority Christian population, they have formed a blooming and prosperous society in these lands. The development was markedly affected by the expulsion of the Jews from royal cities in 1454.

It took nearly four hundred years for the Jews to return after they were expelled by Ladislaus the Posthumous (Ladislav Pohrobek, in Czech). The Jewish communities in the smaller towns prospered even more, benefiting from the traditionally tolerant approach to minorities in Moravia.

At the beginning of the reforms, the largest number of Jewish families (620) was concentrated in Mikulov, which had long been the centre for Moravian Jews. Mikulov was the seat of the provincial rabbi, and even the renowned Rabbi Loew lived here for some time. There were also large numbers of Jewish families in Prostějov (328), Boskovice (326), and Holešov (265). In Boskovice in 1848, Jews accounted for 38% of the population. The tomb of one of the most important local rabbis, Samuel Loew (Šemuel ha-levi Kolina, in Czech), is today a pilgrimage site for many Jews from around the world. The famous Löw-Beer industrialists also came from here. One of the greatest Jewish thinkers of the 1600s, Rabbi Shabbatai HaKohen (Šabtaj ha-Kohen, in Czech) worked in Holešov. In Loštice, a town known for its tvarůžky (a soft pungent cheese), lived Fanny Neuda, whose name is associated with the first Jewish prayer book written by a woman for women. 

The revolutionary year of 1848 brought the Jews the right to move freely, and after the so-called October Diploma (1860) they were allowed to own real estate. In 1862, the original 52 Jewish communities in Moravia were made into 27 political municipalities. The regulation covered municipalities that had their own territory and financial resources for administration. The regulation applied only to Moravia; it can be said to have been unique in Europe. The Jews thereby acquired their own independent municipalities within the cities, with their own mayors, councils, schools, police forces, and their own management. 

In 1890, the census reported 45,324 Jews living in Moravia.

Jewish quarter in Mikulov

Jewish quarter in Mikulov

RISE AND FALL

Certain changes in the attitude towards Jews resulted from the Enlightenment, during which the first economically active Jews began to re-establish themselves in the Brno suburbs. The Patent of Toleration undoubtedly brought about a major shift in relation to the Jewish community. Real equality with other citizens of the empire, however, came only with the reforms imposed on the state apparatus by the revolutions of 1848, culminating in a new constitution in 1867. By that time, the process of mass migration of Moravian Jews from the overpopulated Jewish communities into larger towns, particularly Brno, was in full force.

The first modern synagogue was built in Brno between 1853 and 1855. It was designed in the neo-Romanesque style by the Austrian architects Johann Romano and August Schwendenwein, and the cost of the magnificent construction reached 100,000 gulden.

Jewish entrepreneurs became involved in economic life – their share in the creation of numerous textile factories, which soon gave Brno the nickname of Moravian Manchester, was particularly important. The names of Jewish investors gradually appeared in almost all branches of Moravian industry. At the same time, a number of journalists, writers, actors, artists, and art collectors were active in Brno in the 1800s, and their contribution to cultural life in Moravia is indubitable. The development of Jewish culture continued even after the establishment of the Czechoslovak Republic in 1918, with political leaders advocating a very tolerant approach to Jews within the framework of Masaryk’s humanism. Thanks to these developments, the growing Brno and Moravian Jewish communities produced such figures as architects Ernst Wiesner, Heinrich Blum, Otto Eisler, and Alfred Neumann, philosopher Theodor Gomperz, writer Ernst Weiss, composers Pavel Haas and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, actors Hugo Haas and Fritz Grünbaum, and the social democratic politician Ludwig Czech.

HOLOCAUST

The appearance of Brno as a city with a character created by the coexistence of Germans, Jews, and Czechs, was abruptly ended by World War II.

The Great Synagogue was burnt down by the Brno Nazis just two days after the occupation, on the night of 16 March 1939, when Adolf Hitler arrived in Brno for a visit. It was a gift to the Führer: according to legend, smoke was visible above the former synagogue as the train carrying Hitler pulled into Brno’s main station. Under the supervision of their oppressors, the Brno Jews themselves had to clear the debris.

Other Jewish temples throughout Moravia (in Znojmo, Olomouc, Jihlava, and other towns) met the same fate as the Brno synagogue.

This was only the beginning of the suffering of the Jews in Brno and throughout Moravia from 1939 to 1945.

Before the war, the Jewish community in Brno had more than 12,000 registered members.

As of April 30, 1945, only 804 persons were registered in the territory of the City of Brno as being ‘in a broader sense’ of Jewish origin, including those who were protected from deportation by marriage to a person of an acceptable race.

The survivors often decided to emigrate or unobtrusively integrate with the majority population, although they were forced to face the latent anti-Semitism of the Bolshevik elites. The Jewish community in Brno and elsewhere in Moravia was totally disrupted during from 1939 to 1945, and the Communists successfully erased the historical memory associated with Moravian Jews. In the 1980s, the ‘Winter’ or ‘New’ Synagogue in Brno was demolished, and other monuments of Jewish Moravia disappeared forever.

The ramp at Auschwitz II-Birkenau concentration camp, 1944

The ramp at Auschwitz II-Birkenau concentration camp, 1944

BUILDING

In the project of building the Holocaust Documentation Centre in Moravia, we intend to combine serious social content with an extraordinary, unusual form.

We want to organize an international architectural competition to which we will invite the top figures of contemporary world architecture, individuals and architectural teams such as the Dutch MVRDV; Israeli-Canadian author of the Jerusalem Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Moshe Safdie; Japanese holder of the ‘architectural Oscar’ Sejima Kazuyo; American architects Daniel Libeskind and Thom Mayne; the 2020 Pritzker Prize winners, an Irish duo working under the name Grafton Architects; and another Pritzker winner, the Swiss Peter Zumthor.

We are convinced that ninety years after the Tugendhats moved into their famous villa built by one of the greatest architects of the 20th century, Mies van der Rohe, Brno deserves a new icon of modern architecture. Villa Tugendhat is part of the cultural heritage of the city; it is one of its most visible features and attributes. No other city in the Czech Republic is as strongly associated with modern architecture as Brno. It should continue this tradition, all the more so today as attractive architecture is increasingly understood as an excellent investment through which the city’s brand is completed.

Among other things, the Holocaust Documentation Centre could become one of the key projects in the upcoming candidacy of Brno for the European Capital of Culture in 2028.

Denver Art Museum (designed by Studio Libeskind)

Denver Art Museum (designed by Studio Libeskind)

National Center for Civil and Human Rights, Atlanta (designed by HOK)

National Center for Civil and Human Rights, Atlanta (designed by HOK)

ENDOWMENT FUND

The endowment fund was established on 25 February 2020.

The main task and concern is, of course, the construction of the Holocaust Documentation Centre in Moravia. In addition, it will have in its portfolio a number of activities related to this difficult task, such as co-organizing an international conference and international architectural competition, collecting artefacts related to Jewish tradition and culture, cataloguing and providing academic descriptions of collected exhibitions, issuing publications and other printed matter, organizing concerts, performances, public discussions, and screenings of films related to the main activities of the endowment fund, raising funds for the construction of the Documentation Centre, and charitable activities.

The first director of the Endowment Fund is the publisher and writer Martin Reiner.

The members of the Administrative Board are the President of the Constitutional Court of the Czech Republic, the former Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister of Justice and Senator JUDr. Pavel Rychetský, dr. hc., mayor of the city of Brno, JUDr. Markéta Vaňková, Chairman of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic, Ing. Petr Papoušek, Senator and former Rector of Masaryk University, Doc. PhDr. Mikuláš Bek, Ph.D., and diplomat and former ambassador to Sweden, Ireland, USA, and Russia, PhDr. Petr Kolář.

Pavel Rychetský
Markéta Vaňková
Petr Papoušek
Mikuláš Bek
Petr Kolář